Reflections on the 38th WEDC Conference: how can we link debates on practical implementation and political context?

I’ve been back in DRC for a week now since the 38th WEDC Conference, “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services Beyond 2015: Improving access and sustainability”, and have had time to reflect on the event. It was an enjoyable and thought-provoking week, and an excellent opportunity to connect and re-connect with colleagues and friends from (47 countries!) around the world.

The biggest strength of the conference is its practical and interactive nature. From the first day (which included practical exercises to help understand issues of gender-based violence when siting water points) to the last day (watching demonstrations of different materials for sealing well shafts) and almost everything in between, the emphasis was always on interaction, trying new things and learning from other participants.

The many side events and workshops were the best examples of this, but the presentation sessions were also well-designed to maximise engagement. The facilitators (and of course the presenters) did a great job in keeping everyone to their 10-minute slots to allow plenty of time for discussion. Likewise the timings and physical set-up of the coffee and lunch breaks were excellent for keeping everyone involved and energised. The best sign of this was that the long days and variety of sessions felt motivating rather than tiring. It is easy to see why Robert Chambers, in the closing ceremony, complimented WEDC as being his favourite conference.

My one suggestion for future WEDC conferences would be to think how to build the practical debates more into issues of policy, advocacy and politics. One participant told me that the best presentation they saw was on “how to talk to policymakers” by Chandrika Nath of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. More contributions in this style would have been great to link the practical work of the majority of participants with discussions of the policy and political contexts that we work in.

This discussion could include session themes such as the politics of service delivery, learning from failure, lessons from history, and how change happens. These issues did come up in some sessions and presentations (and I may have missed some of the others given how much was going on at any one time). There were discussions on the shift from the MDGs to the SDGs in the Sanitation Community of Practice event; a side event on the implications for NGOs of Payment by Results for WASH; and presentations on the evolution of sector policy and coordination in countries such as Ethiopia. WEDC keeps the call for papers intentionally quite open-ended and then groups presentations into thematic sessions once they are received. However it could be an interesting idea to specifically seek some contributions and contributors based on these types of themes (rather than their ‘technical’ content). If necessary, some future sessions could also be under Chatham House Rules to help promote openness of debate on potentially controversial issues.

The next WEDC International Conference is planned for 11-15 July 2016 in Kumasi, Ghana, a place from where I have good memories while on a student placement many years ago. Hope to see everyone there to continue the debates and learning!

How can we adapt the life-cycle costs approach for rural water supply in fragile states? What the DRC WASH Consortium has done so far

The DRC WASH Consortium, a programme of five international NGOs led by Concern Worldwide, has made the use of the life-cycle costs approach a central part of our approach to rural water supply. In February 2014, we organised the first workshops on life-cycle costs in DRC for over 50 participants from the sector with the support of IRC WASH. We developed a tool to facilitate the estimation of life-cycle costs and the ability of communities to cover these costs, based on an adaptation of a tool from the Global Water Initiative. In December 2014, the Consortium organised another sector workshop with over 60 participants on how to consider users as ‘clients’ not ‘beneficiaries’.

So far in 2015 we have conducted research on how to improve financial planning tools for use by communities and local health services, not just by NGOs (training modules on this will be available very soon). We have also started research on alternative solutions (such as household water treatment) in villages where a community water point is not viable. And last week, in July 2015, we organized our biggest workshop yet, with over 70 people discussing “How to make sustainable investments in the rural WASH sector in DRC?”

Econ app pic

I will be at the WEDC Conference at Loughborough University in the UK from 27-31 July to present more on all this and the key lessons so far. A taster slide – on how we use life-cycle costs estimates to aid decision-making – is above and the abstract is below. I’ll aim to post more while at the conference and the full paper will be available afterwards. Do come along to find out more and discuss what we can do next to try to promote more sustainable WASH services in fragile states. Abstract:

Investments in rural water infrastructure in DRC are generally made without good information on what financing and technical support is required in the long term for the infrastructure to provide a sustainable service to the users. Given the under-developed policies and local government structures for water supply, the responsibility for organising and financing long-term operation, maintenance, and minor and major repairs is left to the users by default, usually through community-based water management committees. The DRC WASH Consortium is trying to address this issue by adapting the life-cycle costs approach (LCCA) to permit informed investment decisions by local actors which are based on an analysis of long-term economic, technical/environmental and social/institutional feasibility. This paper explains how the Consortium has developed this approach so far, the lessons learned, and recommendations for other WASH sector actors implementing the life-cycle costs approach.

How to analyse institutional arrangements for rural water services and how they evolve: new paper linking political economy analysis and theories of institutional change

I have a new paper in the International Journal of the Commons. The title is Bridging political economy analysis and critical institutionalism: an approach to help analyse institutional change for rural water services. The paper is part of a special issue on “Challenges of critical institutionalism” edited by Frances Cleaver of King’s College London and Jessica de Koning of Wageningen University. Their overview paper sets out the ideas of “critical institutionalism” as a way of helping to understand how institutions for natural resource management evolve. My paper links this literature with work on institutional reform by Matt Andrews (in particular his excellent book on the limits to institutional reform – see here for a good review), David Booth (and the Africa Power and Politics Programme) and the structured approach provided by political economy analysis approaches such as those developed by ODI. My aim is to show how this academic literature can be used in a practical way to help understand how organisations such as NGOs can work with communities and local governments to find ways of improving public services by building on existing local institutions rather than trying to import templates from outside. The approach also fits into recent debates about Doing Development Differently, working with the grain and thinking and working politically.

The abstract is below and the full paper is open access:

This paper argues that approaches to understanding local institutions for natural resource management based on “critical institutionalism” (Cleaver 2012), which emphasises the importance of improvisation and adaptation across different scales, can be placed within broader political economy analysis frameworks for assessing challenges in public services delivery from national to local levels. The paper uses such an extended political economy analysis approach to understand the role of the international NGO WaterAid and its partners in Mali in relation to institutions for financing rural water services, drawing on collaborative research undertaken in 2010 and 2011. The case study shows that WaterAid’s approach can be understood through elements of both mainstream and critical institutionalist thinking. At local government level, WaterAid primarily promotes formal institutional arrangements, which exhibit the challenge of “reforms as signals” (Andrews 2013), where institutional reforms appear to happen but lack the intended function. However, the work of WaterAid’s partners at community level supports processes of “institutional bricolage” through which they try to gradually work with local actors to find ways of ‘best fit’ for financing rural water services which adapt existing local practices into new arrangements.

Bamako to Kinshasa: a PhD and blog update

An update is long overdue: writing up my PhD took priority over blogging for most of 2013. Fortunately, I successfully passed my thesis defence and presented the final results to WaterAid in September – many, many thanks to my supervisors Dr Vandana Desai, Dr Alex Loftus and Tom Slaymaker, and my examiners Professor Frances Cleaver and Professor Richard Carter. The full PhD thesis (and a one-page abstract) is now available online.

Two days later, I moved to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’ve started an exciting new job in Kinshasa, working for the DRC WASH Consortium, a group of five international NGOs funded by DFID to support over half a million people in rural areas of DRC to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene. We are dealing with many of the same issues as in Mali, but in an even more challenging context: understanding the long-term costs of water and sanitation services; working with local authorities and others to support community management of rural water supply; exploring different approaches to sanitation and hygiene promotion; and analysing and trying to influence sector politics.

So this is a reboot for the blog and an early New Year’s resolution for 2014. I will post more details on the results of the PhD and related work that I have just published. I will continue to keep my eye on interesting debates in the wider WASH sector. And – internet reliability permitting! – I will discuss updates from the work of the Consortium and how we are trying to address the challenges to sustainable services in DRC.

Learning from failure: lessons for the sanitation sector – new discussion paper

A version of this post first appeared on the BPD Water and Sanitation blog.

I last blogged about the discussions at the Learning from Failure in Sanitation workshop organised by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP). Now five of us have co-authored a discussion paper called Learning from failure: lessons for the sanitation sector. We presented the paper at the most recent SanCoP workshop, held at University College London in April 2013. The abstract is below and the full paper can be downloaded from BPD Water and Sanitation, one of the SanCoP convening organisations. Comments are open for discussion on the BPD blog and we would love to hear feedback and ideas.

Nicola Greene and I have also co-authored a shorter commentary piece for the journal Waterlines based on some of the ideas in the discussion paper, entitled Crossfire: Can ‘admitting failure’ help the WASH sector learn and improve its work?, available in the April 2013 edition of Waterlines.

Learning from failure: lessons for the sanitation sector

Stephen Jones, Nicola Greene, Andrés Hueso, Hayley Sharp and Ruth Kennedy-Walker


This paper explores the idea of learning from failure in the sanitation sector. The recent trend of ‘admitting failure’ in aid and development forces sanitation practitioners, researchers and policy-makers to ask if we can and should address failure more openly in order to improve our work. The ideas in this paper developed from discussions at a workshop on ‘learning from failure’ convened by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP) designed to kickstart this debate.

We first discuss the concept of failure itself and identify different approaches to learning from failure relating to sanitation. These include acknowledging past failures in order to learn and adapt, and planning for ‘safe’ future failures through deliberate experimentation and innovation. We also argue that a series of further steps are required: understanding relevant previous approaches to learning from failure in the sector; recognizing different types of failure; seeking different actors’ perspectives on failure; and framing the debate about failure constructively rather than negatively.

In the second part of the paper we examine different practical examples of how actors in the sanitation sector have tried to learn from failure, to assess how this happened and what changes resulted. In the final section of the paper we conclude with suggestions for how individuals and organisations working in sanitation and international development more widely can learn from failure. We also propose the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP) itself as one example of a ‘safe space’ in which people can meet to discuss and learn from failure.

April 2013

Five ways of thinking about failure in sanitation

I’m inspired back to blogging by a thought-provoking workshop yesterday on Learning from Failure in Sanitation, organised by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP). Huge thanks to all who contributed. We will share notes and ideas going forward very soon. If you are interested in joining the network, email us and join our Linkedin group. For now, these are my thoughts on one of the key questions of the day: what do we mean when we talk about failure? There are at least five approaches to thinking about failure that I picked out from the discussions: Read the rest of this entry »

More changing Theories of Change, and the importance of flexible and trusting donors

I wrote recently about the how the Triple-S sustainable rural water services initiative has tried to promote change in the sector:

  • Relationship-led (i.e. using champions to mobilise change)
  • Value-led (i.e. leveraging peer pressure and creating coalitions for change)
  • Evidence-led (i.e. providing proof that the current approaches don’t work and proof that other ones do)

These were the approaches originally identified with the external learning facilitators from the Impact and Learning team at the Institute of Development Studies. The Triple-S team and the “ELFs” have just held a further learning retreat, and agreed on the need to improve external communication: more blogging and more resources on the Triple-S website.

So, good news:  more members of the team active on the Water Services That Last blog. It’s great to see the self-reflection and insights on the internal process involved in trying to create external change. Here’s Ton Schouten, previous project director of Triple-S:

We did not have a theory of change when we started … but a lot became clearer in the first year of Triple-S. The clarity did not come out of a planned, linear process; it was not done in a well-organised workshop of two days. It took hours of talking in corridors, meetings, waiting areas and trains to sharpen our ideas of how to make a difference. And it was gut feeling, years of sector experience and good intuition that fed our thinking. For a long time it concentrated on how NOT to do Triple-S.

Read the rest of this entry »

Political economy analysis of rural sanitation in Vietnam: changing Theories of Change

The WASH sector is beginning to explore how donors can more explicitly analyse political economy issues in order to better understand how they can influence WASH sector reforms. This is part of a wider growth in other sector-level political economy approaches. Paraphrasing Edelmann (2009), this trend is due to increasingly open acknowledgement that development is political, development aid is political, and stating a ‘lack of political will’ as the explanation for failed development projects is insufficient analysis. We need to understand politics better, and sector-level support requires sector-level political analysis.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has developed guidance on how the water and sanitation sector can analyse political economy in practice. A recent working paper applies this approach to Vietnam, working with DFID to answer the question: why is performance so poor in the rural sanitation sector in Vietnam, and why have apparently effective innovative pilot projects not been scaled up? Read the rest of this entry »

Learning for Sustainable WASH: my four lessons from yesterday’s event

The Sustainable WASH Learning Event, hosted by Arup yesterday, was overall an honest assessment and discussion by different actors involved of where the sector has got to on thinking about sustainability, and how this general awareness of the challenges needs to translate into actions which lead to a long-term service delivery approach. Many thanks to the organisers for bringing it together, particularly the team from Aguaconsult and IRC. I know they are busy collating the presentations, videos and discussions – and hopefully plenty of new stories for Sensemaker – but in the meantime here are the four lessons I took from the day:

Analyse local and national politics

Analyse donor politics

Think about scale

Talk about subsidy

Read the rest of this entry »

What Theories of Change apply in the water sector?

“Change is hard” in the rural water sector is the message from the Impact and Learning team at the Institute of Development Studies, who have been acting as external learning facilitators for the Triple-S initiative. They explain that so far Triple-S has based its efforts to promote change towards an approach of sustainable service delivery in the sector on three elements:

  • Relationship-led (i.e. using champions to mobilise change)
  • Value-led (i.e. leveraging peer pressure and creating coalitions for change)
  • Evidence-led (i.e. providing proof that the current approaches don’t work and proof that other ones do)

However, Triple-S and the Impact and Learning team are now reviewing progress to see if these Theories of Change need to be revised, and should be reporting back next week.

How do these thoughts compare with the Theory of Change put forward by WASHCost, Triple-S’s sister project? On the surface, their theory suggests a strong belief in the evidence-led aspect of change – the idea that better information on costs of water, sanitation and hygiene will lead to better choices: Read the rest of this entry »